Solstice and darkness

dark-1283298_960_720

The Summer Solstice, that great hinge and turning point of the year, is traditionally a time of celebration, perhaps the single most significant celebration in the Wheel of the Year for Druids and Pagans.

But looking at the news at the time of this Solstice, there seems little cause for celebration; in fact celebration feels, to me at least, hollow and even callous in the face of the appalling evils in the world right now. As I write this, the President of the USA, acting under guidance from a far-right activist with links to the neo-Nazi “alt right”, is tearing children from their families and locking them in wire frame cages in abandoned warehouses. Video and audio of these prison camps has been released which I won’t link to here, but which you can find easily enough. It shows children screaming. There have been suicide attempts. By children.

(Update: since writing this, the President has signed an order “reversing” his earlier order to separate children from parents. However, this order has no effect on the children already held in prison camps, who will remain separated. Any new families being imprisoned will be held together, but still in internment camps, and still detained indefinitely. Whole families are being locked up for no crime, and children who were already taken from parents are not being reunited. I’ll believe the President has truly changed his mind when all the camps are closed and families reunited in freedom).

Closer to home, the UK government is steamrollering a destructive hard-right “Brexit” rooted in fear, racism and xenophobia. Climate change is rising, and governments are doing nothing to stop it. Wars, poverty, discrimination, hatred, are rife. At the Summer Solstice, the time of greatest light, the sun shines on an unfair and unjust world.

But the Summer Solstice is a turning point. For as the light reaches its zenith, the year turns towards darkness. As a Pagan, I don’t hold with the Christianised equation of light with good and dark with evil. This idea, which has itself been used to justify colonialism and racism,  has no place in a spirituality that holds the night, the moon and the dark to be as sacred as the sun and the day.

As we turn to the darkness, may we find peace and healing. And may we find something else – power.

There is power in darkness. Witches ancient and modern know this, holding rites beneath the velvet blackness of the midnight sky. In darkness we are unseen, we are changed, we become mystery, magic. And magic can hex as well as heal.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a “love and light” Pagan. Druidry has a dark side.

So this Summer Solstice, this shortest night, this turn towards the dark, once the sun in its glory has set beyond our sight, I offer this hex, a prayer to the darkness.

To all who do evil, and those who manipulate others to do evil;

To all who aid and abet evil, through action or through word;

To all whose works bring division, fear and pain;

To all whose thoughts are malice and hate:

May darkness rise and cover you.

May darkness rise and overwhelm you.

May darkness rise and silence you.

May darkness rise and banish you.

May darkness rise and weaken you.

May darkness rise and take you.

May shadows hold and bind you,

Now and evermore.

Now and evermore.

Advertisements

Truth to power

black-power-2274368_960_720

The classical authors tell us that one of the roles of the ancient Druids was to act as advisors to kings and chieftains, steering their decisions and offering words of wisdom in times of political trouble.

Those of us who take on the name of Druid in any sense today should feel empowered and inspired to live up to this ancient role. Of course, we don’t have the ear of those in power, but we still have a right and a responsibility in a democratic society to speak our mind, and have our voices heard.

If you’re angry, upset, or shaken by the recent UK election result, and the pending “deal” between the Conservatives and the DUP, a party of homophobic sectarian Christian fundamentalists supported by terrorist groups (and if you’re not angry, as they say, you’re not paying attention), you can step into the role of the ancient Druids and speak truth to power.

Protest. Resist. And write to your MP. You can find their address online via They Work for You.

By writing your words down and sending them to your representative, you can offer advice, voice your concerns and most importantly of all, show them that the people are watching them.

And never feel that you can’t make a difference. The greatest trick of illiberal anti-democratic governments is to make you feel powerless. You are not. People making their voices heard is the only thing that ever creates change. We have the power.

So, when the political establishment is collapsing, and far-right groups are on the ascendancy, ask yourself what would the Druids do?

To keep silent?

mural-1614092_960_720

Silence is traditionally part of some Pagan practices, and forms part of the guidance of some forms of Wicca and witchcraft, as part of the advice “To know, to dare, to will and to keep silent”.

While there are many reasons for silence that are legitimate either within a particular tradition (especially one deriving from the Mystery School traditions where certain initatory rites are kept secret), or in some societies without religious freedom, I feel that there are some areas where the traditional injunction to silence is at best unhelpful and at worst injurious to individuals and Paganism as a wider whole.

Please note that I am not talking here about silent meditation, prayer or contemplation, which are of course valuable spiritual practices, nor about shutting up when listening to others’ experiences, which is just good manners.

The first, and perhaps most obvious issue with silence, is the danger of cults. Silence, the injunction to not divulge anything of the cult’s activities or even existence to non-members, is a commonplace tactic used to isolate people from friends, families and wider society and ensure their complete dependence on the cult. These sorts of commands to silence often come with a call for the member to have complete faith and confidence in the cult’s leadership and wisdom, slurs against non-members as being too vulgar, worldly or sinful to hear the cult’s message and implicit or explicit threats of punishment and exile for those who break them. Such forms of isolation, censorship and internal control are listed as cult signs in the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Framework created by Druid and ADF founder Isaac Bonewits.

In Paganism, where organisations can be self-created and have no regulation (which for the most part is a good thing, don’t get me wrong), this can be a fertile field for cult-like activity, with self-appointed High Priests, Chiefs or Archdruids holding unelected positions of absolute authority over their members and dispensing “secret wisdom” from on high.

Thankfully, this activity is rare, but it is worth being aware of and watching out for, and any injunction to silence always raises red flags in my mind.

The other way silence can be used negatively is to suppress public displays of Paganism and/or dissenting political opinions. Georgina at the Green Hedge Druid makes this point in her post about the recent “witch” protests in the USA and around the world (read the whole thing, it’s important).

Many people, unfortunately many within the Pagan community, voiced the opinion that these public forms of Pagan, or at least Pagan-influenced, protest should have been done in silence, behind closed doors. Often, this criticism was couched in terms of wanting to “protect” other Pagans who may face persecution by association with the protestors. Yet, ultimately, it boils down to a command for others to shut up, sit down and not make a fuss in public, even as a legitimate and effective form of political protest.

And when addressed primarily to women who identify in some way with the symbolic reality of the Witch as an empowered figure to make change in the world, it’s a “get back in the kitchen” argument dripping with misogyny.

This call to silence effectively oppresses an already oppressed group by taking their voice away from them. It rings uncomfortable bells that remind me of those who claim to have no problem with the LGBT community, if only they weren’t so open about it and kept it to themselves. Why should they?

As Georgina writes:

“Surely we have spent so much of our lives, and those who came before us, hiding away from persecution and sometimes death. By coming out and being public with their paganism (or just representing the ideas), these protesters have not only drawn attention to the fact that witches do actually still exist (even though many would wish that weren’t true) but that they’re bloody angry about the injustices being dealt out by the current leader of their country. I would be more concerned if pagans weren’t coming out and protesting.”

Silence will not change anything.

Silence allows the oppressive system to continue oppressing.

Silence disenfranchises the disenfranchised.

Silence is complicity.

And silence will not save you.

Perhaps instead of “to be silent” now is the time, maybe more than ever, to know, to dare, to will, and to speak out.

To speak out against injustice and oppression. To speak out, and be “out” as a Pagan. To speak, to add your voice to the wider conversation, to share a distinctly Pagan perspective on issues such as social justice, environmentalism, human rights etc.

There were no doubt times in the past when silence was the most appropriate thing to do as a Pagan, and, the way things are going, there well may be again. But I don’t think now is that time.

It’s not always easy to speak out, and I still get scared about what people might think about me if they “found out” that I am Pagan. I’m certainly not suggesting everyone needs to be loud and proud all the time in all situations. Sometimes, it is not appropriate, such as in the workplace, for example. And some people have social anxiety (I do!) that means they can’t always be as open as they would like to be and do most of their Pagan-ing from a computer.

This is OK too, but please let’s not try to shame those who are open and vocal into silence. The first rule of Pagan Club is not, in fact, don’t talk about Pagan Club. I think that public displays of Pagan, or Pagan-influenced, practices is a great thing, and opens discussion while showing people that, hey, we exist, and we have rights too.

What do you think? Is silence part of your tradition, and if so why?

Childfree and Pagan

daisy-424893_960_720

So, yesterday I watched a documentary on the BBC about people choosing to be sterilised so as not to have children. The programme itself (available on iPlayer for those in the UK) was pretty awful. The people chosen, while all awesome and very much my sort of people, were to the mainstream viewer’s eye…well…weirdos. Nerds, aspies, people with mental health issues, non-binary folk etc. Again, they’re all brilliant people and brave for going on telly, but they were clearly chosen to fit a particular narrative about what childfree people are like.

The programme also interviewed a “bioethicist” (actually a theologian, not a medical doctor…yeah, let that sink in) who basically said that having children is what makes us human, sterilisation is mutilation, and “allowing” people to make that choice is “treating these people as if they were irredeemable”. So…thanks for that.

This got me thinking about the emphasis on childbirth in Paganism, as well as in the wider “life script” offered to us by society. In certain forms of Paganism I have experienced, there is a huge focus on “the God” and “the Goddess” coming together to create life. The Wiccan Great Rite reflects this idea (in either its literal sexual form or its symbolic athame & chalice metaphors), as does some forms of Druidry.

The idea of “male and female polarity” is part of this as well, suggesting that “male” and “female” are universal energies, that embody certain qualities (often seen in “traditional” hunter-gatherer terms) that are innate to one gender or another and that they need the “opposite” to be complete. Srsly, I’ve heard Pagans say that a man needs a woman and a woman needs a man to complete them…yeah.

This also often leads into a very heteronormative idea of sex and sexuality, where, despite Pagans talking a good game about sex-positivity, can boil down to basic biology of male seed + female womb. The elevation of straight, reproductive, penetrative sex as the Most Sacred Mystery of course necessarily involves the unspoken assumption that other forms of sex and sexuality are lesser. You don’t have to hold a “God Hates Fags” sign to perpetuate homophobia, even unconsciously.

And then there’s the perpetually-pregnant statues of the Mother Goddess, and the Maiden, Mother, Crone archetypes, and Ceridwen and Taliesin, and so on and so on.

All of which serves to make me, a childfree, sexually-fluid, not particularly “masculine” man happily married to an equally childfree, sexually-fluid, not particularly “feminine” woman, feel pretty alienated. I would love to know how it makes gay and trans* Pagans feel (I genuinely would love to know, if you are one please leave a comment!).

Of course, we now know that gender is a spectrum and that the roles and qualities attributed to “men” and “women” are largely social constructs. Women can be warriors and men can be homemakers. Shocking, right? It’s almost like it’s the 21st century or something…*snark*

One of the cool things about ADF Druidry, where I began my Druid training, is that they don’t do any of that. They deliberately don’t do Wiccan-style “God and Goddess” gender polarity stuff, and they are pretty explicit in their openness to, and support of, the LGBT community. And while they do have a virtue called “Fertility” they go to some pains to point out that they don’t mean it as literal reproduction (think a fertile field or mind instead).

But it seems all too common for Paganism in its more generic forms to fall back on unquestioned 1950s concepts of gender and sexuality, which may have been truly revolutionary compared to the conservative Christianity of the time, but are now woefully out of touch with the wonderful diversity blooming in our modern, connected world.

What am I getting at with all of this? I don’t know, mostly it’s just a rant about something I find deeply irritating and unsettling. But also, I would like to look to a vision of Paganism that, yes, still holds childbearing and mothers as sacred, but also encompasses the sacredness of LGBT people, childfree people, non-binary people, asexual people, people who cannot have children because of biology rather than choice, and everyone in between.

For me, it is Nature which is most sacred. And Nature shows us infinite variety and diversity. Not only has homosexuality been observed in literally hundreds of species, there are eusocial insects and naked mole rats, where whole colonies are sterile apart from the queen and a few chosen suitors, there are fish which change gender depending on water temperature, there are trees which mate as male and female, and trees which are both and mate with themselves. There are single celled organisms that reproduce by dividing, aphids who make clones, galaxies born from the black holes of other long-dead galaxies.

There is, as in the Vulcan creed (Trek nerd alert!) Kol-Ut-Shan: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

And that is sacred. We are sacred. Our bodies and our choices are sacred. And above all, Love is sacred.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Love is the law. Love under will”. -Crowley

Get out there

mammatus-clouds-1927905_960_720

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that sweet yet lucid air, sit quietly a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; you will outlive the bastards.”

-Edward Abbey (1927-1980), American author and essayist.

Quote shared by BadHombreLandsNPS on Twitter, “Protecting rugged scenery, fossil beds, 244,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie & wildlife from two-bit cheetoh-hued despots.”

Love (still) trumps hate

togetherness-1880155_960_720

“There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” -Leonard Cohen

This weekend saw anger, hatred, ego and fear elevated to the most powerful position in the world. This week also saw threatening storm clouds at home, warning of hard and dark times to come.

Yet, in the midst of fear, this week also saw people who refused to go quietly into a dystopian future, who refused to give up hope. Around the globe, hundreds of thousands of women and men marched in solidarity in what is being described as one of the largest protest events in history.

These protests are not “sore losers” who refuse to accept a democratic outcome, as opponents childishly portray them. These are people who are using their democratic right to dissent, to speak their voice and to fight for their rights and the rights of others.

This is what democracy looks like.

I was privileged to be able to attend two small rallies in my home town this week, one to call for a strong EU and a halt to the damaging severance planned by the government, and one to stand up to racism and bigotry in the wake of ascendant and vicious fascism here and abroad.

These were both powerful statements against and powerful statements for. Against hatred and division, and for unity and love.

Even in times when evil seems to triumph, goodness flowers, as tenacious as a weed. This is the crack where the light gets in. This is the glint of hope shining like an evening star through the darkness of fear.

This is the future fighting to be born.

“And in Knowledge, the knowledge of Justice; And in the knowledge of Justice, the Love of it” -Druid prayer

Lessons from a Gorse bush

flower-1242923_960_720

Ever since I got given the Gorse Ogham few at Druid Camp in August, this spiky little shrub has been teaching me lessons.

Gorse (Ulex europeana) is not exactly the stately, ancient, tall tree of the forest one might first associate with Druids and with wisdom: that title surely goes to the mighty Oak. But, it is not without insight.

Gorse thrives on the margins: clifftops, coastlines, scrubland, cleared forest, waste ground. For those of us on our own margins, for ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT folk, eco-activists, 2016 has been a hell of a year, and 2017 looks set to be even worse. The UK and US have been turned upside down in a wave of xenophobia, sexism and right-wing extremism. Fascists, racists and ecocidal maniacs are in the ascendancy and much of what we now hold dear will be laid waste over the coming year.

Yet Gorse teaches us to dig in, to put down our roots and not be moved. Gorse is a tenacious bugger, and survives harsh weather, poor soil, cutting down, and even wildfires, always springing back up, spikes raised up like so many middle fingers, as if to say “I’m still here, you sods, now what are you going to do about it?”

To say that Gorse is prickly is an understatement. It is covered in spikes, every leaf is a needlepoint blade. This spikiness is its great defence. Small animals, who can slip through or under the spines, shelter in Gorse bushes from predators and use its protection. Gorse teaches us to protect ourselves and those we love when predatory politicians or dangerous ideologies threaten us and our world. Whether through learning self-defence, joining a group or cause and gaining strength in numbers, protesting, being present as an ally for oppressed people or just locking your doors and protecting your hearth and home, Gorse reminds us of the importance of protection and defence.

These spines also remind us of the importance of allowing ourselves to be prickly, to be angry, to not have to be “nice” and polite accommodating and docile in the face of blind hatred.

Gorse can be used in healing, and the wood is a great kindling for a hearth-fire. Gorse teaches us the importance of staying warm and healthy, of practicing self-care. In times of turmoil, self-care is not selfish, it is self-preservation and a form of defiance against those who would seek to diminish us.

Gorse has bright yellow flowers even in winter, and is rarely out of bloom. Gorse teaches us hope in the darkest of times, and reminds us to “bloom” even when the odds are stacked against us. Gorse gives hope that even when all seems lost, the sun will shine again and life always prevails. There’s a tradition to kiss when the Gorse is in bloom, which reminds us to hold our loved ones close, to enjoy love and to be in control of our own sexuality.

For 2017, let’s try to be more like this hardy, tenacious, stubborn, spiky little shrub. Let’s raise our spines against the forces of hate and put down our roots, bloom brightly, and always, always grow back.